The White Lady Just Doesn’t Get It: A Response to Maureen Dowd’s “Critique’ of Michelle Obama

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Although she doesn’t seem to realize it (nor do I suspect she would admit as much if confronted with the fact), Maureen Dowd’s admiration for “cheeky women” who “puncture the ego of a cocky guy” comes with a caveat: the women have to be white. She can be a  Hollywood star from a bygone era, Katie Kouric or Cybil Shepherd; she can’t be Michelle Obama. But don’t dare tell Ms. Dowd this because she, like all too many liberal-minded Americans, would be appalled by the suggestion that race has anything to do with her distaste for Michelle Obama’s attitude toward her husband. For her, the discomfort she feels with Mrs. Obama’s “cheeky” remarks about her candidate husband has everything to do with Senator Obama’s candidacy. According to Dowd at least, Obama’s entire campaign rests on his “Camelot Mystique” rather than an actual record, therefore his wife is doing him a disservice by “mocking” him in public.

Interestingly enough, Dowd sees herself as coming to Senator Obama’s defense, when in reality she is only stoking the flames of the always tense black woman-black man-white woman triangle. She is, in effect, contributing to a pervasive stereotype within the black community (and perhaps outside of it as well)— namely that black women pull black men down and are to blame for pushing them into the arms of white women. Writes Dowd,

I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal – a comic routine that rests on the presumption that we see him as a god.

The tweaking takes place at fundraisers, where Michelle wants to lift the veil on their home life a bit and give the folks their money’s worth.

At the big Hollywood fundraiser for Sen. Obama in February, Michelle came on strong.

“I am always a little amazed at the response that people get when they hear from Barack,” she told the crowd at the Beverly Hilton, as her husband stood by looking like a puppy being scolded, reported Hud Morgan of Men’s Vogue. “A great man, a wonderful man. But still a man.

“I have some difficulty reconciling the two images I have of Barack Obama. There’s Barack Obama the phenomenon. He’s an amazing orator, Harvard Law Review, or whatever it was, law professor, bestselling author, Grammy winner.

“And then there’s the Barack Obama that lives with me in my house, and that guy’s a little less impressive. For some reason this guy still can’t manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn’t get stale, and his 5-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is.”

When I wrote about the Santa-Clausification of Jackie Robinson a couple of Mondays ago, this is exactly what I had in mind. Too often, the “good black” has to be a Christ-like figure, a man or woman beyond any critical assessment and moral judgment. This is because, historically speaking, in order for white America to accept blacks as equals worthy of their support, they have had to be nearly other-worldy or ‘god-like,’ as Dowd points out.

Dowd’s critique of Michelle Obama fails to appreciate at least two main features of what I see as Mrs. Obama’s approach to humanizing her husband—one political; one cultural.

Dowd’s main criticism stems from her sense that Mrs. Obama is misreading the American public. In her estimation, Michelle’s approach is flawed primarily because instead of making her husband look human, it makes him look a little foolish.

My reading is a little different. I see a woman, a possible future First Lady, establishing a new precedent for the role the First Lady plays before the public. We, of course, know that Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt pulled many behind-the-scenes strings, but Mrs. Obama seems to be taking a more radical step than even they did by establishing her outspokenness even before moving into the White House. She is saying to the American public, ‘This is me. This has always been me. This will always be me. Do not expect me to change. If you vote for my husband, then understand this is what you are getting yourself into.’

By the same token, Mrs. Obama is making certain that the American public does not mislead itself about her husband in order to satisfy its own as yet unresolved race conscience. Barack Obama is a man. He makes mistakes. He will not be perfect in office just as he is not perfect at home. Whether Dowd realizes this or not, too, too many Americans have yet to integrate Senator Obama’s humannness into their consciousness. To them, he is still a sensation, a prophet of some kind, a symbol of the American ethnic melting-pot, an emblem of upward mobility. Anything but a flesh and blood man.

Ultimately, you can only respect Michelle’s approach and acknowledge that, after looking at Laura Bush’s plastic smile while her husband ran the world into the ground for eight years, it is a welcome change that provides for a fascinating sub-plot to the main stories: the first woman or first African-American residing in the White House. The possibility of Bill Clinton becoming the first male First Spouse (not to mention that former Leader of the Free World thing) ain’t got nothin’ on Michelle Obama becoming the first African-American First Lady.

Beneath Dowd’s critique of Mrs. Obama lies another incendiary land mine that must be diffused: the suggestion that, perhaps, there is conflict at home. Dowd wouldn’t dare come out and make such a claim, but she does write “that [Mrs. Obama’s] career had caused her husband discomfort” (a misreading of a Chicago Tribune article on Mrs. Obama), and that she “wants us to know that she’s not polishing the pedestal.” Both remarks, along with the hint that Michelle’s chiding risked “emasculating” Obama, reveal how little Dowd (and those who think like her) understand the ways black men and women relate to one another, and that is different than other ethnic groups. The historical circumstances black men and women have faced in this country have required women to develop an independence from their men that has ultimately put a strain on the relationship. Because of the prolonged physical and psychological assault on black masculinity, black women have not had the “luxury” of being able to rely on black men to provide for them or their children as others have. They had to go out into the workforce long before suburban housewives became fed-up with their insulated lives. They had to accept the reality of single parenting long before other women began to explore it as an “option.”

Barack Obama has said time and time again that he admires and relies upon his wife’s strength. Before the 2004 DNC speech that thrust him into limelight, she was the one he turned to when he nervously awaited his call to the podium. “Just don’t screw it up, Buddy!” Michelle told him, and instantly the tension was broken with shared laughter. In the same Tribune article that Dowd loosely paraphrased from, Obama was quoted as saying “There’s something about her that projects such honesty and strength. It’s what makes her such an unbelievable professional, and partner, and mother, and wife.” Far from “emasculating” her husband, Michelle Obama sees her husband as one of the few men she’s met “who is not intimidated by strong women.”

“He relishes the fact that I’m not impressed by him,” she has said.

Michelle Obama didn’t go to Princeton and Harvard Law just to meet a husband. She went to those schools because she had intelligence and ambition and because she was preparing to make a life for herself. When she first met Barack, she made it clear to him that her career was a priority. Only by persistence did he eventually win his way into her heart. Even their marriage and family is no matter of convenience, no window dressing designed to facilitate his political ascent. She demands that he participate as a fully-functioning family member. In all likelihood Dowd wouldn’t disagree that family responsibility is imminently important, but what she seems to believe is that “mundane” family matters have no place in the public arena, that they only dull the sparkle of political spectacle. Again, she is wrong. If our leaders are to lead, then they must reflect the values we should all aspire to in every aspect of their lives, not just those captured for the camera. By playfully pointing out her husbands flaws, Michelle Obama is doing exactly what Americans need their leaders to do more of: putting the family front and center.  By completely  “white-washing” the racial undertones of her criticism, Dowd does precisely what America needs less of: evading the obvious.